The creator of a viral Internet campaign to prevent gay teens from committing suicide tells The Upshot that parents need to stop trying to turn their kids straight and instead "realize the choice isn't between a gay kid and a kid who isn't gay, but a gay kid and a dead kid."
What started out as a single video uploaded by the Seattle-based sex columnist and gay activist Dan Savage has quickly turned into an Internet phenomenon, with "Project Runway" star Tim Gunn, talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, and other celebrities releasing powerful videos telling gay teens they aren't alone and that their lives will improve.
The hundreds of videos uploaded to the It Gets Better project have been viewed more than a million times, Savage says.
Savage tells The Upshot he started the project after reading about several teens who killed themselves. One common thread emerged in the deaths: The kids had endured relentless bullying at school for being gay. Savage said he wanted to talk to those kids before they took their own lives to tell them that the bullying would eventually stop, and that their lives would get better.
"A bullied straight kid goes home to a parent who is on his side. A bullied gay kid goes home to more bullying and is dragged off to a church for more bullying from the pulpit," Savage said. "A homophobic parent may not care if a kid lives or dies — we do. A lot of homophobic parents think their bullying will convince their kid to be straight."
Savage didn't expect celebrities to make videos for the project. He says gossip blogger Perez Hilton was responsible for soliciting videos from famous people, but that most of the hundreds of videos are from regular people giving messages of support.
You can watch Savage's original "It Gets Better" video below:
"It has brought hope to me, it's really demonstrated to me that there are people around the world who care," Savage said of the response to the video messages. He jokes that he is still holding out for an anti-bullying video from first daughter Malia Obama, which could make "a huge difference." At least one resident of the White House has already chimed in: Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett called Savage's campaign "powerful" while speaking out against anti-gay bullying over the weekend.
The success of the project is in part due to timing. Shortly after Savage posted his video, Rutgers teen Tyler Clementi committed suicide, drawing national attention to the issue of gay bullying. Clementi threw himself off the George Washington Bridge after his college roommate allegedly broadcast online his romantic encounter with a man.
Savage, though, has harsh words for those who oppose gay marriage but have expressed support for his project, like New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser, who wrote that her "heart breaks" for Clementi. You can't "abuse gays and lesbians at the ballot box" while advocating for an end to gay bullying, Savage says.
Gay and lesbian teens are four times more likely than other teens to report having attempted suicide, and 9 out of 10 report being bullied, according to recent studies cited by CBS News. Parental tolerance for their sexuality tends to reduce the suicide risk, one recent study suggests. Savage recommends gay teens contemplating suicide to call The Trevor Project, a suicide hotline.
(Photo courtesy of Dan Savage)